Merdaka Day in Melaka

In our travels in Malaysia, we saved the oldest for last: Melaka. In the 1300s and 1400s, that port city in southwestern Malaysia was the heart of a sultanate that ruled much of the Malay Peninsula and had trade contacts throughout Southeast Asia. Its wealth inevitably attracted attention from European explorers and merchants, and in the early 1500s, the Portuguese conquered Melaka. Over the centuries that followed, they were succeeded by the Dutch and then the British (rarely peacefully). Eventually, Melaka was surpassed as a trading hub by Singapore and Penang, and the city became a backwater.

In 2008, when George Town, Penang, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, it shared the honor with the oldest parts of Melaka. Having spent so long in Penang, we were eager to see its sister city.

We had the luck to be in Melaka for two significant events: the end of Hungry Ghost month and Independence (“Merdaka”) Day. The last of the hungry spirits were sent back down to the underworld with lots of fireworks, bonfires, and karaoke. The next morning, Melaka, like all of Malaysia, celebrated the country’s equivalent of the Fourth of July. There were flags everywhere and a parade through the historical district that seemingly half the city marched in. We stood on the sidewalk with some friendly Melakans dressed in the red, white, yellow, and blue of Malaysia’s flag and watched school marching bands go past, interspersed with delegations from the military, the police, the ambulance service, various colleges, the electric and telephone companies, and lots of other offices. Whenever someone’s friend or relative marched by, cheers erupted. There were also junior martial artists, middle-aged joggers, classic motorcycles and cars (VW bugs and Morris Minors), and the city’s iconic rickshaws.

Usually, Melaka’s tourist zone is full of bicycle rickshaws lavishly tricked out with flashing lights and pop-culture themes (Hello Kitty, Minions, the Incredible Hulk, or Frozen) that blare music as they peddle around groups of tourists, clogging the streets and deafening passerby. At least as part of the parade, they weren’t holding up traffic for once.

The loud and crazy rickshaws are just one of the differences between Melaka and its sister city in Penang. The historical center of Melaka is much smaller than George Town, with narrower streets and way too many cars. As in George Town, many of those streets are lined with old shophouses. But here, they tend to much more ornate on the outside, with Chinese porcelain mosaics or brightly painted plasterwork in floral themes. The effect is a little too gaudy for my taste.

Melaka also has some buildings that are much older than anything in Penang, such as the 17th-century Dutch Stadhuis (statehouse), now a history museum; the ruins of a 16th-century fortress gate and Catholic church; and a plain little Dutch Protestant church from 1753. There’s also a cool modern recreation of the 15th-century sultan’s palace, built of tropical hardwoods without any nails.

Melaka is full of museums. There are ethnographic museums, a maritime museum, and museums about postage stamps, the state education system, and the history of Malaysia’s ruling political party. (We skipped those last ones.) The People’s Museum has an interesting but seemingly random collection of stuff: displays about meteorites (fragments of which are used to forge traditional kris daggers), kites and other toys, notable women of Malaysia, and traditional body-modification practices around the world (piercing, foot binding, head squishing, tooth decorating). The diorama—that staple of old-time natural history exhibitions and grade school projects—is alive and well in Melaka’s museums, as it the cheesy historical painting.

One of our favorite features in Melaka is its wonderful riverwalk. A recent civic improvement project created a nice paved walkway on both sides of the narrow river that bisects the city. It’s lined with potted plants and murals and spanned by pedestrian bridges, which make it a great way to get around without having to dodge cars on the streets. Eating dinner in a cafe on the river and strolling along the riverwalk afterward under the lights felt a tiny bit like being back in Dutch or Belgian town enjoying the canals.

As in Penang, food is a big deal in Melaka. Every Malaysian who heard we were going to Melaka said the same thing: “Try the chicken rice balls.” This signature dish consists of brined and roasted chicken accompanied by small balls of sticky white rice. It’s good, but nothing spectacular, especially if you’ve visited places (such as northern Thailand or Laos) where sticky rice is common rather than a novelty. A bigger treat is the old-fashioned chendol, the original Malaysian snowcone: a bowl of shaved ice soaked in coconut milk and palm sugar. Cold and sweet and creamy.

Melaka marked a good end to our two months in Malaysia. It seemed especially fitting that our last day in the country was a holiday celebrating Malaysia’s 59 years as an independent nation. The next morning, Malaysians got up and went back to work, and we set off by bus for Singapore to catch a plane to Sulawesi, Indonesia.

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